Last of the Monster Kids

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Saturday, February 13, 2016

OSCARS 2016: The Big Short (2015)

Director Adam McKay made his career with goofy comedies starring Will Ferrell, about characters with names like Ron Burgundy or Ricky Bobby. A socially conscious project like “The Big Short” might seem uncharacteristic of the director. But go back to “The Other Guys,” the buddy cop parody McKay made in 2010. Inside a delightfully absurd spoof was commentary on white collar crime and Wall Street scumbaggery. This is obviously a topic that interests the director. That interest has crystallized with “The Big Short.” Based off Michael Lewis’ non-fiction book, the film attempts to unpack and explain the circumstances that lead to the financial crisis of 2007.

In 2005, a hedge fund manager named Michael Burry sees something nobody else does. A market collapse is eminent, coming within the next two years. The housing market is tittering because of debt-ridden bank loans and shifty corporate selling strategies. Burry cooks up a scheme to profit off the coming crisis, betting against the American economy. His information trickles down to several other ears. Trader Jard Vennet gets in on the deal, alerting others. Outspoken hedge fund manager Mark Baum investigates further, realizing the level of fraud at work within the system. Upstart investors Charlie Gellar and Jamie Shipley stumble into this knowledge, also hoping to make themselves rich. When the collapse happens, nobody is properly prepared for what happens.

“The Big Short” is dealing with a topic that the majority of people will not understand. I sure as fuck didn’t understand it. McKay realizes how impenetrable this topic will be to most viewers. In order to prevent the story from being dry or confusing, he loads the film up with flashy elements. Characters frequently break the fourth wall, directly addressing the audience. Some times, the actors admit how fictionalized the story is. At one point, Gellar and Shipley tell the audience that events as portrayed in the film are more dramatic than what actually happened. Another minor character clarifies Jared’s statement about him, which is one of the biggest laughs in the film. When the situation gets especially convoluted, McKay pauses the plot. Margot Robbie in a bubble bath or Selena Gomez at a blackjack table appear in extended, metaphorical segments. When not being directly meta, McKay launches through the film with rocket-paced editing, musical numbers, montages, and scene breaks. Even then, I only understood about half of “The Big Short.”

“The Big Short” repeatedly reminds viewers that the film is based on a true story. Maybe fact is stranger than fiction because most of the movie’s cast is made up of talented actors playing excessively eccentric characters. Christian Bale's Burry – who never interacts with the other leads, by the way – has a glass eye, blares heavy metal when concentrating, and frequently rambles when asked questions. Bale indulges all his intensity and quirkiness. Steve Carell swears and rants, acting to the rafters. Unlike the showy Bale, at least Carell disappears into the part. Brad Pitt goes in the opposite direction, muting himself, as Ben Rickert. A conspiracy theorist and paranoid worrier, Pitt is so dialed back that he almost seems bored. The other cast members are better, less showy.

“The Big Short” is technically a comedy, albeit of the darkest variety. A problem that faced “The Other Guys” is that its subject matter was far too depressing to amuse. “The Big Short” has the same problem. The film carries a glibness about the market collapse and underhanded banking technique. The movie remains sarcastic even up towards the end, when the story plays out without the villains being punished. As “The Big Short” goes on, a dark cloud floats over the audience. The film’s lurches into drama, like Carell weeping, seem at odds with its snide tone. The most dispiriting movie I’ve seen in a while, “The Big Short” leaves the viewer fully bummed out.

“The Big Short” truly is a lecture, not a movie. Adam McKay and his cast do their damnest to convince the viewer otherwise. At times, the film is exciting or audacious.  Despite its best efforts, it can’t make the intricacies of banking and market manipulation easily understandable. It also can’t keep up a sardonic atmosphere, when the subject matter is this crushingly grim. Impressive direction/editing and some amusingly showy performances aren’t enough to make “The Big Short” a satisfying viewing experience. [6/10]

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